Saturday, April 16, 2011

Overcoming Carrot Anxiety--Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa)

I'm scared of carrots. I don't mean the carrots you find in the supermarket. I am afraid of experimenting with plants in the carrot family (Apiaceae or Umbelliferae depending on how old your field guide is). I fear them with good reason. A single taste of water hemlock (Cicuta sp.) can be fatal. "Some victims chew their tongues to shreds," notes Elpel in Botany in a Day (115). There's just something about this idea that unnerves me a bit. Despite the high stakes, carrot anxiety is a fear I need to overcome. The carrot family contains so much tasty goodness. The poisonous relatives are readily identifiable. You just have to be careful about identifying them. Hence the care with which I approached the parsnip.

One year ago, I had a hunch that the whorls of compound leaves that were sprouting up in our field were parnips. I did not gather them though. I wanted to see them through their whole life cycle. I watched them grow. I studied the second-year stalks. I keyed them out when the flowers appeared. Only then was I certain, but by then the roots had passed their prime. Finally, as the plants' returned their energy to their roots to overwinter (They are biennials.), they were ready to harvest.

When I dug up the tiny rosettes today, about a year after I first spotted their ancestors, the sweet, familiar smell of carrot wafted up from the earth. In a matter of moments and in only three turns of the shovel, I had almost half a pound of promising wild food.


  1. yeah... it'll probably be a couple years yet before I eat any wild carrot, if ever. Just too scary. Hope these are delicious though!

  2. They were delicious. I recommend a slow 'taste-in' protocol for any new plant. Touch to lips. Wait a few hours. Touch to tongue. Wait a few hours. Chew and spit. Wait a few. One bite. etc.
    I do a variation of this process with many plants, especially one keyed out for the first time. Carrot family gets the whole rigamarole.

  3. Here’s a link to the transcript of the man that we talked about today who mistakenly ate the poisonous mushrooms:

    However, his mistake was exceptionally blatant as the mushrooms they consumed had gills instead of pores. They wouldn’t be considered a close look alike. He said, “I'd once picked ceps or porcini, as they're called in Italy. And this is what we thought they were. Had we looked in the book, we would have known they absolutely weren't because porcini have a very smooth, spongy underneath and these had gills.”

    His story is a powerful and sobering reminder about being careful and cautious. I try to reread and re-familiarize myself with what I’m foraging, especially because it’s often a year or more between gatherings of a specific plant or mushroom. It takes a long time and many gatherings at different stages before you completely know a plant or mushroom.